When you walk through Central Park you feel like you’ve escaped out of the city into the countryside—you’re surrounded by natural beauty.
Except that it’s not. Natural, I mean.
The space where Central Park was built was originally a “pestilential, rocky swamp.” The natural beauty of Central Park is completely designed to seem as if it wasn’t designed at all. When the park was built, back in the 1850s, only wealthy New Yorkers could afford to go the Adirondaks. The designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, wanted to give the experience of being in the Adirondacks, the same experience of beauty, to those who couldn’t afford it.
Central Park is a park designed for everyone.
Joshua Cohen wrote of two examples of the designer’s obsessive attention to detail.
First, the park is 2 ½ miles long. The Central Park Commission said that there had to be four cross-streets connecting the east and west sides of Manhattan. To do that and still feel as if you’re in the Adirondacks, Olmsted and Vaux put the cross-streets eight feet below ground level—an innovation in park design. Second, in the Bethesda Terrace there’s a fantastic ceiling made with more than 15,000 tiles. They’re encaustic tiles which means that the color and geometric design on the surface goes all they way through: it is not a glaze but multi-coloured clay. The ceiling was designed by British architect Jacob Wrey Mould, based on his two-year-long study of the Alhambra. So this public park in New York City includes a structure with a ceiling based on one of the most beautiful works of architecture in the world.”
Beauty for everyone.
I’m so grateful that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux believed everything matters, that they went for excellence—down to the tiniest, most obsessive detail. And, as a result, gave us Central Park.
Excellence, it turns out, is not elitist. Excellence is the most inclusive thing. It is beauty and beauty reaches everyone. It’s a bit like books that way. At least picture books. The best ones are completely designed to seem as if they aren’t.
Truly great design is almost invisible, I think. It’s there not to draw attention to itself—it’s there to not get in the way of the story, the experience, the beauty.
Great art is a generosity. Because it’s not about the creator or the designer—it’s about the person looking at the painting, the reader opening the book, the New Yorker walking across the park.
Photos by Sally Lloyd-Jones.